Dr. Mark Jordan ~ ENGL 1301: Composition & Rhetoric
Three-Part Format: Classification
The section that follows is another of six sections dealing with essay structure and various modes. This section deals with the Classification mode and is a modification of the basic essay outline given in the Basic Three-Part Format section.
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The Classification Mode
What the Modes Are
By the time you are working within this section of the course, you have probably completed assignments in at least one or possibly two "modes," though you may not have thought of them as that. So before going further, it is appropriate to discuss these "modes" and what they are.
A mode is a pattern of writing, or in even more basic terms, it's one of various ways to try to understand any topic or issue or problem. Put in yet different terms, the modes are fairly typical thinking or problem-solving patterns that people, over centuries, have discovered. In a writing class, of course we deal with modes in written form, but even before they were writing devices, they were--and are still--thinking devices. Given almost any issue, someone familiar with the modes can approach that issue in any of many ways in the effort to understand it better.
That person can think of examples of the issue or topic, for instance. That's the illustrative mode, in which you examine a topic by discussing general situations in which that topic occurs. For example, if the topic is grieving over the loss of a loved one, a way to explore that topic is to examine several different such situations of loss. Or a person can try to understand an issue or situation better by telling one long story about it; that's the narrative mode. Yet again, a writer can approach a topic by discussing several logical reasons which support some opinion about the topic. This is called the persuasive mode, and it is particularly suitable for arguing for a particular position on some issue on which there are several widely-held opinions.
There are other modes as well. The person, or writer, can deal with a topic, for instance the topic of racial bias, by discussing causes of racial bias; that's using the "cause" mode; or if the writer discusses consequences of racial bias, that's using the "effect" mode. If the writer discusses bigotry in the context of its opposite, racial tolerance, then he or she is using the comparison/contrast mode. Any of these modes is just another way to better understand a given topic. One of the main purposes of this class is to help you learn to both think and write using several different modes.
Definition of Classification
Continuing with the same hypothetical topic of racial bias, this imaginary writer might decide to explore that topic by breaking it down into its individual parts. In doing that, the writer is using the "classification" mode.
So to classify something, you break it into its parts. Why? Well, did you ever take something apart, when you were a kid, to understand it better? Or did you know somebody who did? They were dividing and classifying, and their purpose was to understand their topic better.
Features of the Classification Mode
Here are some of the major features of this mode of writing. Read this section carefully and refer back to it frequently while writing your classification essay.
The reason there are many different ways to form categories is that there are many different possible Principles of Classification (which I will often refer to as the "P of C"). The P of C is the logic according to which you slice your pie (make your categories), and a different P of C will not only result in different categories, but can show you different things about a topic.
This is best understood with an example. If I say to you, "Okay, I want you to classify all cars made in the U.S..," most people would probably come up with three categories: Ford, GM, and Chrysler. That's fine, but in doing this most people would unconsciously be using a certain Principle of Classification: one that chooses categories ACCORDING TO MANUFACTURER. That's valid, but there's an important point that's easy to miss, and that point is that if you aren't consciously aware of what P of C you're using, you never think about other possible ones to use which might be much more useful. (In fact, the best classification essays are the ones which take advantage of unique or unlikely Principles of Classification.)
Once you've realized that other ways to slice the pie are possible, you may come up with a wide range of options you didn't see before: U.S. cars classified according to mileage; or according to performance; or according to reliability; -or according to passenger comfort; or according to looks; or probably according to any of a dozen other Principles. Any one of these is just as valid an answer to the classification assignment imagined above.
Another, worse effect of not being consciously aware of your P of C is that if you're not, you may mix one P of C with another, with disastrous effects. Suppose, by not consciously noting your original P of C above, you come up with these categories: Ford, GM, and Chevy.
There's a problem here, but would you catch it? The problem is that Chevy is part of GM, so how can it be a category equal to GM? Well, it can't. This would be a useless piece of writing, made worse by the additional problem that Chrysler got left out altogether.
Three Rules of Classifying
This brings us to three rules of classifying:
(1) ALWAYS USE A CONSISTENT PRINCIPLE OF CLASSIFICATION. Don't start with one and unconsciously switch in mid-essay to another. In the above example, Ford and GM are categories chosen according to manufacturer, while Chevy was chosen according to model--which is a subset of manufacturer, just like an English class is a subset of a Bachelor of Arts degree.
(2) ALWAYS MAKE SURE YOUR CATEGORIES DON'T OVERLAP IN ANY SIGNIFICANT WAY. If you screw up #1 above, you usually screw up #2 here also, just as, by unconsciously shifting from a Manufacturer P of C to a Model P of C, you had an entire category (Chevy) which didn't just overlap, but was completely contained within another category (GM).
On the other hand, sometimes the only way to get away from a little overlap is by making some fairly artificial boundaries between categories. In certain topics, that's okay. I'm talking about topics which by their nature don't divide obviously into separate categories but instead tend to form a spectrum or continuum. Members of these types of topics change only slightly by degrees, though these degrees ultimately add up to a lot.
Again, this is clearer with an example. If U.S. cars are classed by manufacturer, the category boundaries jump right out: three manufacturers whose cars are visually and otherwise different from one another. But if the cars are reclassified by mileage, the boundaries are not so clean-cut. In fact, I can make just about as many categories as I want. If I want three, I might make one of less than 20 mpg (miles per gallon), a second of 20-30 mpg, and a third of over 30 mpg. Or I could have many categories for every 5 mpg of change. See what I mean? Keep this different type of P of C in mind. It's neither better nor worse, just different.
(3) NEVER LEAVE OUT ANY SIGNIFICANT MEMBERS OF THE OVERALL GROUP WHEN MAKING YOUR CATEGORIES. This is the rule which really separates a classification essay from, say, an example essay. In an example essay about racial bias, to go back to that sample topic, I'm free to talk about several features of racial bias, for instance. I choose interesting examples of features of racial bias and discuss them. But in a classification essay along those same lines, I have to discuss ALL the features of racial bias--or at least all the MAIN features of it--or else I haven't truly classified it; I've written an example essay which I'm falsely calling a classification essay.
When I say you must deal with all MAIN or SIGNIFICANT members of the overall group, that is an important word to note. You can't leave out obviously crucial categories and still say you have a true classification, but many times there will be several really important categories and a whole slew of minor ones, or at least several minor ones which you really don't need to discuss, or want to discuss. There are two ways to handle this situation: by NARROWING YOUR TOPIC or using a DISCLAIMER.
Choosing to classify racial bias according to its MAIN characteristics while leaving out minor characteristics is, in itself, an example of narrowing a topic. Another example would be to classify racial bias YOU HAVE WITNESSED according to its main characteristics. Yet another example would be to classify it IN ODESSA, or ON THE OC CAMPUS, according to its main features, or according to its main victims, or whatever.
A disclaimer has even a more specific focus than a narrowing of topic. An example of using a disclaimer would be classifying cars made in the U.S. according to manufacturer, but leaving out Toyota and Honda on the grounds that even though these manufacturers do have plants in the U.S.., they are not truly U.S. car manufacturers. A disclaimer names specific categories that will not be discussed, tells why they're being left out, and generally is used when the writer anticipates being questioned by the reader as to why such-and-such a category is missing.
Choosing and Wording a Principle of Classification
Let's move back for a moment to the more basic procedure of simply figuring out how to word your P of C. The most straightforward approach is to write something like, "I'm going to classify [state your overall group] ACCORDING TO [state your P of C]." The key words in this pattern are "according to." An equally effective substitute for these key words is "on the basis of." And there are no doubt other equally good substitutes. The important thing is to explicitly, plainly state your gauge or yardstick which you're using to choose categories, rather than proceeding unconsciously with some Principle of Classification. Usually, if you proceed unconsciously, the P of C you use will be the most obvious one, meaning you are overlooking many other possibilities which, because they are less obvious and less familiar, could help you learn much more about the topic than the obvious Principle of Classification.
One last point about classifications concerns the relationship of the P of C to the thesis of the essay. Remember, your thesis consists of your OPINION about your topic. Another way to think of a thesis is that it states the PURPOSE of your essay, its MAIN POINT. Usually, the P of C in a classification essay is the thesis (though not always). If the purpose of the essay is clear in the P of C, then that P of C is also your thesis.
For example, if you're going to classify cars according to mileage, your purpose and thesis are quite clear: you want to know what cars get the best mileage. If you classify racial bias on the OC campus according to where it happens, your purpose is still fairly clear: you probably want to know how serious of a problem it is, and where it is most serious, so something can be done about it in those areas.
However, consider this example: suppose I say I'm going to classify students in my classroom according to where they sit. What's my thesis, my purpose? Do I really just want to know how many students sit where? More likely, that P of C is hiding a covert thesis--not intentionally, perhaps, but hiding it nonetheless. I might well have the purpose of trying to seek some connection between seating choice and grade performance. If I do, I either need to reword my P of C to more accurately reflect my true purpose--my thesis--or else add a thesis right after the P of C which states that purpose. In fact, a full-fledged thesis, which might come only at the conclusion of a classification essay, would go so far as to state not only my purpose, but my conclusion as to whether there is a traceable link between seating choice and grade performance: yes there is, or no there isn't. As far as how to handle this less visible purpose while stating the Principle of Classification, one approach is to write "I'm going to classify [state your overall group] ACCORDING TO [state your P of C] for the purpose of [state your purpose, your thesis]."
Outline for a Classification Essay
This section presents a specific outline which you should use in writing your classification essay. You will be graded in large part on how well you conform your essay to this outline. Here are some of its main features:
Here's the outline:
II. MAIN BODY
By studying this outline, you should be ready to compose a competent and effective classification essay according to the topic choices you are given. For additional help, below you will find a sample student essay. However, please ask questions on items which confuse you. That is the main way to control how well you understand this mode and how well you do on any assignment utilizing it.
A Sample Student Essay
While reading this essay, look for each element of the outline in turn. Because it is an actual student essay, it may not fulfill each element absolutely perfectly, but nevertheless it represents strong work, with much good to be said about it, and much to show you about an essay of your own in this mode.
One additional note: Please realize that in this web format, it is very difficult to indent paragraphs; therefore this sample essay does not use paragraph indents. However, it is still customary in academic work to indent each new paragraph and also to double space the entire document.
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